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Economy & Business

Examining The Increase In Long-Term Disability Payments

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We heard a hard-luck story when interviewing voters this spring. We met Rob Weindell on a cul-de-sac in St. Charles, Mo. He says he has less money than he used to. His story was simple but clearly painful to tell.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ROB WEINDELL: Actually, I lost my job. I got downsized.

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. Where we were working?

WEINDELL: At Xerox.

INSKEEP: When did that happen to you?

WEINDELL: 2009.

INSKEEP: OK. That was a long time ago. Have you been able to work since?

WEINDELL: No.

INSKEEP: You've looked and nothing is...

WEINDELL: No. After that, I got in a bad car accident. I'm on disability.

INSKEEP: We call attention to this story because Mr. Weindell is not alone. The number of people on disability has steadily risen for decades. David Wessel of The Brookings Institution is here to help us understand what's happening. Hi, David.

DAVID WESSEL: Good Morning.

INSKEEP: How big is this trend?

WESSEL: Well, Mr. Weindell is not unique. There are now about 9 million American workers, twice as many as 20 years ago, who get money from the Social Security disability program because, in the terms of the law, they can't engage in what - in substantial, gainful activity.

INSKEEP: Wow.

WESSEL: Now, some of that's because we have more older workers, and they are more likely to be on disability. But even adjusting for that, the Social Security trustee says the rate at which adults get benefits has risen by 25 percent over the past two decades. Five percent of all Americans are getting these benefits. In some states, mostly in the South, it's 7 percent or higher.

INSKEEP: Wow. So what's happening here? Is this essentially long-term unemployment maybe for some people?

WESSEL: It is, in fact, the ultimate safety net. Now, there are a lot of things going on. Congress has made the program easier to qualify for benefits over the past 30 years, but we know that people like Mr. Weindell who lose their jobs are more likely to apply for disability. We know that people who have poor job prospects, perhaps because they have little skills or little education, find it attractive sometimes to go on disability because of the way the formula works. And we know that when the job market is lousy, people who have a disability but might choose to ignore it and work - opt out and go into the system.

INSKEEP: Well, the job market is not supposed to be lousy right now. The unemployment rate has gone below 5 percent. Are there people who are just not able to participate here?

WESSEL: Yeah, there are. The number of people in the job market working for - looking for work has fallen. And particularly for low-wage workers, low-skill workers, the job market remains pretty unattractive. And so some of them, this is the last resort. And of course, it wasn't designed for that. It was designed in an era 50 years ago, when it was launched, when either you were disabled or you were a worker.

And now we know, because of the American Disabilities Act, which requires employer to accommodate disabilities, the advance of medical technology and medical science, that we don't - we have a system that no longer makes it easy to be partially disabled.

INSKEEP: This has become sometimes a political issue. As we were travelling around, we also met a Republican politician in Maryland who said he was convinced that people on disability, some of them, can actually work. Is he right?

WESSEL: Yes, there has been some fraud. Some of it involves conspiracies with doctors and lawyers and even Social Security administration judges. For instance, more than 100 New York City cops and firefighters have pled guilty to falsely claiming that they had psychiatric disability stemming from 9/11. And it's true that people who get on SSDI rarely get off the program and return to work. But I think it's a stretch to say that the bulk of the people in the program are faking it or committing fraud.

INSKEEP: Most people need something.

WESSEL: Yes, most of the people on the program can't work. And we've made it hard for them to be partially disabled and get some benefit but still work.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.

WESSEL: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: David Wessel of The Brookings Institution, the Hutchins Center there. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.